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Sore throat

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on May 31, 2023.

Overview

A sore throat is pain, scratchiness or irritation of the throat that often worsens when you swallow. The most common cause of a sore throat (pharyngitis) is a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu. A sore throat caused by a virus resolves on its own.

Strep throat (streptococcal infection), a less common type of sore throat caused by bacteria, requires treatment with antibiotics to prevent complications. Other less common causes of sore throat might require more complex treatment.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a sore throat can vary depending on the cause. Signs and symptoms might include:

Infections causing a sore throat might result in other signs and symptoms, including:

Throat anatomy

The throat includes the esophagus; windpipe, also known as the trachea; voice box, also known as the larynx; tonsils; and epiglottis.

When to see a doctor

Take your child to a doctor if your child's sore throat doesn't go away with the first drink in the morning, recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Get immediate care if your child has severe signs and symptoms such as:

If you're an adult, see your doctor if you have a sore throat and any of the following associated problems, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery:

Causes

Viruses that cause the common cold and the flu also cause most sore throats. Less often, bacterial infections cause sore throats.

Viral infections

Viral illnesses that cause a sore throat include:

Bacterial infections

Many bacterial infections can cause a sore throat. The most common is Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococcus) which causes strep throat.

Other causes

Other causes of a sore throat include:

Rarely, an infected area of tissue (abscess) in the throat or swelling of the small cartilage "lid" that covers the windpipe (epiglottitis) can cause a sore throat. Both can block the airway, creating a medical emergency.

Risk factors

Although anyone can get a sore throat, some factors make you more susceptible, including:

Prevention

The best way to prevent sore throats is to avoid the germs that cause them and practice good hygiene. Follow these tips and teach your child to do the same:

Diagnosis

Your or your child's doctor may review the symptoms and medical history. He or she may conduct a physical exam that includes:

Throat swab

In many cases, doctors use a simple test to detect streptococcal bacteria, the cause of strep throat. The doctor rubs a sterile swab over the back of the throat to get a sample of secretions and sends the sample to a lab for testing. Many clinics are equipped with a lab that can get a test result for a rapid antigen test within a few minutes. However, a second, often more reliable test, called a throat culture, is sometimes sent to a lab that returns results within 24 to 48 hours.

Rapid antigen tests aren't as sensitive, although they can detect strep bacteria quickly. Because of this, the doctor may send a throat culture to a lab to test for strep throat if the antigen test comes back negative.

In some cases, doctors may use a molecular test to detect streptococcal bacteria. In this test, a doctor swipes a sterile swab over the back of the throat to get a sample of secretions. The sample is tested in a lab. Your or your child's doctor may have accurate results within a few minutes.

Treatment

A sore throat caused by a viral infection usually lasts five to seven days and doesn't usually require medical treatment. Antibiotics don't help treat a viral infection.

To ease pain and fever, many people turn to acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or other mild pain relievers.

Consider giving your child over-the-counter pain medications designed for infants or children, such as acetaminophen (Children's Tylenol, FeverAll, others) or ibuprofen (Children's Advil, Children's Motrin, others), to ease symptoms.

Never give aspirin to children or teenagers because it has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition that causes swelling in the liver and brain.

Treating bacterial infections

If your or your child's sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor or pediatrician will prescribe antibiotics.

You or your child must take the full course of antibiotics as prescribed even if the symptoms are gone. Failure to take all of the medication as directed can result in the infection worsening or spreading to other parts of the body.

Not completing the full course of antibiotics to treat strep throat can increase a child's risk of rheumatic fever or serious kidney inflammation.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about what to do if you forget a dose.

Other treatments

If a sore throat is a symptom of a condition other than a viral or bacterial infection, other treatments will likely be considered depending on the diagnosis.

Self care

Regardless of the cause of your sore throat, these at-home care strategies can help you ease your or your child's symptoms:

Alternative medicine

Although several alternative treatments are commonly used to soothe a sore throat, evidence is limited about what works. If you or your child needs an antibiotic for a bacterial infection, don't rely on alternative treatments alone.

Check with your doctor before using any herbal remedies, as they can interact with prescription medications and may not be safe for children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and people with certain health conditions.

Herbal or alternative products for a sore throat are often packaged as teas, sprays or lozenges. Common alternative remedies include:

Preparing for your appointment

If you or your child has a sore throat, make an appointment with your family doctor or your child's pediatrician. In some cases, you may be referred to a specialist in ear, nose and throat (ENT) disorders or an allergy specialist (allergist).

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

Make a list of:

For a sore throat, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

Don't hesitate to ask other questions.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask questions about you or your child. Your doctor might ask:

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